Jesus, MLK, and How to Close One’s Mind

Twice in the past week I’ve come upon some artwork that some people have considered controversial or disturbing.

First there was the story on NPR about the “homeless Jesus statue”. A Canadian artist created a statue of a man, huddled under a blanket on a public bench. Upon closer inspection he is identified—primarily by the bloody holes in his feet—as Christ. In a North Carolina town where the statue sits in front of the church that purchased it, the article states “some loved it; some didn’t.” That’s a remark that can be said about any piece, but it seems the reasoning behind those responses was less about art appreciation and more about disturbing one’s perception of iconic figures or possibly disrupting the cleanliness of their town.

The second instance was my recent attendance to the current Penumbra Theatre production of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. It seems that Ms. Hall’s play has received some mixed reactions since it premiered in London in 2009, and this production has seen some of that itself. The play, in part, reveals a very human and even flawed rendition of Martin Luther King, Jr. with which some audience members have taken umbrage. From what I learned, during their run in a Charlotte, NC numerous audience members left part-way through the play, and often in a not-so-quiet manner. It seems to some the play offended their senses by making MLK less than perfect and thereby tarnishing the image of their idol.

Is it just a North Carolina thing? Hmmm…I’ve been there a few times. It’s a lovely state, with some lovely people. Some backwards people, too. Somehow I doubt NC is alone, and I doubt these things reflect the whole state anyway.

In both instances though the artwork has made people uncomfortable. It’s challenged their perceptions of the world, or of these men, as they know them or as they want them to be. By altering, even ever so slightly, these two men, it seems to have…what? Called everything in to question and thereby shaken up their world to such a degree that the only response is to flee or contact the proper authorities?

I love artwork that’s challenge—that presents an image or a concept or a tale that challenges the norm and questions the moral or ethical compasses in the room. And these two instances are tame by many comparisons. You want controversial visual art? Homeless Jesus has nothing on Serrano’s Piss Christ.

Apologies: I’m hard pressed to come up with a  controversial play that includes Jesus, MLK or a modern day prophet at the moment. 

I’m disappointed to hear that people were disturbed by these things. (I’m actually more disturbed that some people in the wealthy neighborhood were bothered by what they thought was a real homeless person, but that’s another issue.) In many ways, isn’t being disturbed (or moved) the thing that art is supposed to do? Shed light on topics, set up a mirror for us and make us think? Evoke a response.

Some people have used that element—evoking an emotional response—as what differentiates it from craft.

MLK was human and flawed, but he was passionate about social justice and strived to do something about inequalities. Who’s picked up the baton he dropped?

I’m sure for some the meaning or messages we could see in the homeless depiction of Christ were lost. Homeless as in he has no place in our homes, as well as that adage “whatever you do to the least of my brothers….”

I think this is just what art is supposed to do. What’s being presented is not necessarily presented as truth or ideal or even just. But whether people embrace it, applaud it on their feet or walk out in a huff, it seems to me there must be something there.

And by walking away, from either of these pieces, those witnesses gave up the opportunity to learn something new, and to expand their (closed) mind a bit further. 

Finding a Good Book

Last weekend I returned from a week-long, beach vacation in Mexico. I did nothing other than sit on the beach, read, people watch, jump in the Pacific and eat and drink my way through the town.

This was basically my view for about 8 days.

book, beer, beach.

Before going I had asked friends for suggestions of good beach reads – nothing too dense, fiction, perhaps suspense or mystery. I received plenty of ideas, and in addition to having my Nook with me I picked up two paper backs. (I’d rather a paper back be destroyed, stolen or lost, so they were my intended beach-time indulgence.) I downloaded a free sample to my Nook of both books and read them on the plane to figure out which I would read first.

We arrived on Saturday, and by Thursday I had completed the first book. It was fine, it was interesting, it was the right mind-candy. THEN I started the second book.

Just as I had done with a bowl of Lucky Charms when I was a kid, I saved the sweet marshmallows for last. I was immediately intrigued by this one with the sample, and by the time we left on Sunday I was about two-thirds through it.

Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close by Jonathan Safran Foer quickly moved into the ranks of some of my favorite books.

It hadn’t been a suggestion, but the recent movie ads had intrigued me. It seems like it might be a bit sappy, but the story struck me as possibly being imaginative and epic. I came across the book on one of my final dash-to-Tarjay-and-get-stuff-for-vacation trips and I was still searching for a second book. They didn’t have what I was seeking, but I saw this, I picked it up and thought…well, why not?

As with most people, when I read a book there’s a specific voice that I hear. It gets established quickly in my head and remains there unchanged. (I don’t know how it happens or how it all works. I’ve talked to people about it and my experience makes sense to some, but I’ve had a few people who think I’m a bit looney.) This kid’s voice in my head narrating the book was immediately charming and fun. His words and the writing flowed easily from one thing to the next, like some kind of ADD issue was involved, but I flowed with it, enjoying the ride and feeling very much in tune with him. It was going to be a perfect read.

The only problem was every once in a while I’d have to put it down. There I was in a tropical, relaxing setting, and suddenly because out of nowhere would come this beautiful or touching image or passage or something that reminded me of someone or something….I’d find myself gasp at a line, and tears would roll down my cheeks. I’d have to put it down.

Yes, it’s about 9/11, or at its basis that’s the event that propels the story, but it’s really about so much else. Family. Relationships. Wonder. Hope. Fear. And there’s no evil in this book. The, for lack of a better phrase, heart wrenching elements are out of compassion and kindness. And there are surprises and twists along the way. Also, it’s a visual book. There are graphics and photographs and fonts and text designs all along the way. There’s a whole monologue for two pages written in numbers because it’s spelled out on a telephone keypad. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the specific words (although I want to translate it now) because I know what the character was saying – and it was beautiful and touching. There are places where words are missing or written over each other and illegible. It’s not just text. The art here is also in these visual elements. It makes for a brilliant package.

What I really wonder is how the movie could possibly be made. There are, essentially, multiple story-lines happening, and in fact the POV of the writing changes between three different characters. (I suspect the movie doesn’t do this.) Any one of these points of view make for a good story, and as I was reading it, with the words flowing so naturally and interestingly as they do, I kept thinking how I wished this were an unknown writer and not a book with a major film version, because I would love to create a stage piece from these characters and words. In my head I could see something imaginative and playful and just a bit stylized, as if Dominique Serrand or his now defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune had created it. It’s that kind of lovely. That kind of creativity.

I don’t know. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time to read this. Even if that’s just the case, I relished my time with it and I’ll miss these characters.

Of course, I’ve already downloaded Foer’s other book.

Breathe in…

Last night I spent an hour with some of my favorite performers, a group of people who I jokingly refer to as “my favorite Irish poet group.” I mean, they’re the only group of performing poets I know of, Irish or otherwise, and frankly they’re all I need.

I’m a bit of a fan-boy. That’s how someone described it anyway, and I’d have to say it’s fairly accurate. I am enamored of Scream Blue Murmur.

I first became aware of them several years ago when they were performing in the Fringe at Red Eye, where there was another show which I had worked on. A friend from that told me about them and said they were really good: “You should see them.” I trust her judgement so I went, even though my first thought had been “Irish Poets?….Spoken word kind of stuff?…Stand there and read poetry?….hmm. Ok.”

I expected perhaps, an enjoyable, pleasant, literary event.

What I got were powerful words and beautiful images that flowed out of them, filled with anger, regret, hope and, somehow, peace. I was enthralled, and I wanted more.

Since then I’ve seen them a few more times, whenever they’ve come to town. (I mean, they live in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after all. Google maps tells me…well, actually it refuses to calculate it.) If you haven’t seen them it’s unfortunate because their work is rather hard to describe, but I’ll try.

Their current show, Something’s Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse is essentially about how life in America had been good and then suddenly the economy tanks, unemployment sky rockets, people lose their homes, and there’s anger and resentment everywhere, some pointed at those whose skin color is darker than many.

No, this is the 1930s.

I know, right?

It’s poetry, at the heart. Modern, lyrical, sweeping poetry, typically with a kick or a twist or an edge. There are no rhyming pretty pieces about flowers and puppies. There are, instead, flowing words like “persistent reliving of traumatic experience” and“southern trees bear strange fruit” on topics like the ravages of war, racism, violence, hunger, poverty, class struggles, human rights.

It’s political. If nothing else, it’s about politics. Like all their shows. They’re kind of modern day hippies, screaming at the establishment. But quietly, with a lilt.“if you see them massing in the distance/Mobilise – don’t let them rise.”

It’s music. This show is more music than any of their past shows, it seems, although there’s always been music. This time there was lots of music – not only by Aisling, Chelley, Gordon and Brian (I’m wondering where is PhatBob??) but also by the members of the audience, who were given plastic water bottles with a bit of pebbles inside to act as percussive shakers, taking part in the music. The place became a party, with lights up and people singing along and shaking their bottles and tapping their feet. “Sing to me, Billy Sunday…”

It’s visual. In many parts of the show there are videos or pictures flashed on the wall behind, relating the topic at hand. Old black and white newsreels of bustling cities, print ads that you’d never see today (“More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand!”) and pictures of things that are ugly from our history like black men hanging from trees.“Scent of Magnolias, sweet and fresh, / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” No, that’s not comfortable to hear, see or witness. It shouldn’t be. So we think about our fellow man and remember, and re-think our modern world.

It’s communal. Their words are about all of us or at least about all of our lives. At one point in the show they invited members of the audience up on stage with them to sing and shake their makeshift rattles. It was one of the motliest groups I’ve seen, with a wide swath of diversity. The 350 lb man, and the tiny, dread-locked, gay black man, and the girl with pink hair, and the 6′ transgendered woman in heels. A picture of all walks of life, each with their own struggles, or perhaps the same.

I was struck last night on my way home about all the stuff I’ve seen them do. Here you have a group of folks who live in Belfast, and for all I know are born and raised in Northern Ireland. A place with a violent, tumultuous recent history over sovereignty and religion. Where bombings and killing were often too commonplace. Yet the work I’ve seen from them has often been about our own country, our own struggles, and our own shameful past. They know from whence they speak.

No, this doesn’t do it justice. I can’t describe their work. The name belies the fact that there is no screaming. And the most striking thing is the underlying element of commonality, of charity and goodness, of love and understanding. There’s something about them and their words and their utterances. There’s something about the playful glint in their eyes, the sincerity of their smiles, the singing crowd…the sexy accents. I want to sit with them, listen to them, discuss the days’ news with them and buy them another round, in some loud, crowded pub. They make me think, make me feel, make me wonder – about myself, my neighbor, my world.

“Breathe in Scream Blue Murmur / Breathe out humanity.” It’s a breath I hope to take again, even if I have to travel to the UK for it.

The last words I heard were: “We may have saved millions.” Indeed. I hope so.

See them yet this weekend at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.


all italicized quotes, © Scream Blue Murmur.

How to Buy Art, or Not.

Several weeks ago I went to a visual arts event in Northeast Minneapolis (aka Nordeast) that has grown to be quite the popular cultural weekend in Minneapolis. At Art-A-Whirl hundreds of studios in warehouses spread around the neighborhood open their doors to the public and hundreds, actually thousands, spend a weekend strolling from one to another, taking in the wide array of forms and styles.

Of course, virtually all of it is for sale.

If that sounds cynical, re-read it. It’s not. It’s a good thing. Artists need to and deserve to be paid for their work, and paying artists (of any genre) is not a cut-and-dried method. I think it’s wonderful that these painters, photographers, sculptors, etc., use the group dynamic they have to bring people in and I hope many of them rested easier this month knowing the rent on that studio is paid.

My few hours at ArtAWhirl were spent on a rainy, steamy Saturday. The hallways and stairwells were crowded, people squeezed past others to get to things, or to get out, and everywhere was the fear of knocking something over or off a wall. Several studios put out snacks or treats, so we nibbled our way down one hallway.

We had been in the market for a painting to hang over our new fireplace. We were hoping for something colorful, and possibly relating to the north shore of Lake Superior, a favorite destination of ours. We wanted something that would work well on the muted, but colorful stone facade. I had done a little homework and had identified a number of artists in a couple building whose work might be right and that I wanted to visit. Not too realistic, but not too abstract, types of things.

We saw some great and fascinating pieces, and if I had the money and space I’d have bought at least ten paintings. I’d find something I like and my partner would be kind of “meh” about it. Or vice versa. When we stopped in Douglas Ross‘ studio we found things we both liked. Colorful images of the rocky shore of that Great Lake. We considered sever, agreed to both liking the look and size of a particular one, we moved on with a “we can stop back if we decide we want it….”

Half hour later we were back.

We met the painter, with whom we surprisingly had a lot in common. The painting is of a sunny day, at a point, he tells us, in Lutsen. We buy it.

We chat as he wraps it safely for us, then places it in a plastic bag for extra protection from the possible rain. We pay buy by check, directly to him. We shake hands and go off with our original painting.

When we get home we immediately unwrap it and place it above the fireplace and step back.

There’s a pause. We both contemplate.

One of us finally says, “Well, that doesn’t work there.”

We thought we found the perfect companion to that wall of colorful stone, but we hadn’t. It was too much, too busy, too overwhelming. The good news is that it looks terrific on the colors of either the dining room or the living room walls. And that’s where it’ll hang.

Luckily it made us realize just what it was about the painting we liked and what it was that didn’t work, giving us guidelines as to what we should buy for that special place. This discovery was remedied weeks later, up North, in its own special way. (I’ll share that later.)

Owning original art feels great, and buying it directly from the artist even better.

10 Things about 2010

  1. I completed my full-length play, which lives in limbo waiting for its knight on a white horse of a production.
  2. I work-shopped and staged a challenging script with a committed and fun group of actors. Ari Hoptman is the funniest man I know and almost made me piss my pants in rehearsal. fyi – The script was a drama.

    self-portrait, silhouette on rocks, north shore, fall 2010

  3. I jumped in to the fray of commercial and industrial work (again) and met and worked with awesome people.
  4. I dipped my toe in the pond of Twin Cities independent film, and had some of the most fun acting experiences I’ve had in a long time while shooting a film. I look forward to seeing the results this coming Spring.
  5. I started reading more blogs, finding new ways to write, just for kicks and exercise.
  6. I exercised my creativity while helping design our remodel and construction project, and I now have a comfortable, cozy home. (Side note: in 2011 I need to find that right piece of art to hang over the new fireplace.)
  7. I witnessed a number of spectacular productions, including Unspeakable Things at Sandbox (extremely creative,) The Homecoming at Gremlin (extremely polished acting and directing,) two Minnesota Fringe Festival production: Standing Long Jump (a beautiful new script) and Missing (a beautiful real, one-person show,) and saw some astonishing work in the Tony Award winning August: Osage County.
  8. I took part again in one of the best theatre experiences possible, with Chicago Avenue Project.
  9. I enjoyed my photography hobby, taking over a thousand pictures throughout the year and shared a few here.
  10. I failed to expand my horizons, having only completed 1 of the 5 items I listed on that 2010 Resolutions…or What I’ve told myself back in January. The only thing I accomplished was #2 which didn’t even get me out of the house. Maybe I’ll blame it on having spent so much time, energy and money on making the new house this year. Yeah, that’s it.
Happy New Year!

It’s 1989. Do you know where your art is?

This little news story, about which I say it’s ” little” because I feel I’ve seen little about it in most press, is disturbing to me. I caught this item yesterday at MPR. Search Google News for Smithsonian and Wojnarowicz if  you need to catch up.

Basically two congressmen, Boehner and Cantor, raised a ruckus and stirred up others, and the Smithsonian removed a controversial video from an exhibit. In fact, it seems, Boehner wants the entire “Hide/Seek” exhibit removed.

It’s all too reminiscent of the late 80s and early 90s, when figures like Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley (along with her other three of the NEA 4) were raising hackles by conservative (read: narrow minded) politicians, calling for censorship and control.

David Wojnarowicz was raising his own hackles back then too with his own controversial works. Sadly he died from complications of AIDS in 1992, and isn’t here to defend himself. Floating around the internet, remind myself about him and his work, I learned he was only 37 when he died.

37 years old. That’s so young.

Wojnarowicz's Untitled (Buffalo)

Wojnarowicz's Untitled (Buffalo)

I remember seeing a large exhibit of his work at Illinois State a few years before his death. He spent several days, perhaps a week, on campus as a guest artist for students in the art department. I found his works exhilarating, challenging, daring, bold, scary…and many of them just plain brilliant. That exhibition has stuck with me for the past twenty years. I realized a number of things in that gallery, primarily that there are no boundaries to art as long as there’s a soul or a message or a story and a point of view. And Wojnarowicz’s work was full of layers, full of all those things.


I also remember meeting him and chatting briefly, really only long enough to tell him how amazing some of the pieces were. For as brash and out-there as his works were, he was a bit shy or perhaps reclusive. Granted, he’d probably been being inundated by students for hours when I ran in to him in the small lounge commonly known as vendoland (called so due to the numerous and myriad foods and drinks available by machines) and so he probably just wanted to be left alone. He was polite, but a bit reserved. He seemed to genuinely appreciate my blathering commentary.

The experience of art is subjective, and as an expression of our world (or one’s world) it should be thought-provoking, educational or even disturbing. Perhaps it’s only enjoyable and pleasant. In any case, a response.

But censorship has no place here. And it is not a small issue when a congressman of Boehner’s position, or frankly any politician, strong arms our cultural institutions in to pulling works of art. Whether it’s the national portrait gallery or the public arts in Bemidji, no where should the men and women who are elected to uphold our constitution forget our first amendment rights.

Thankfully numerous galleries around the country have apparently picked up the baton and are now showing it, including  CB1 in Los Angeles and the New Museum in New York.

I wonder if  the Walker will make a statement and join them here in the middle coast.